Independence

Bonny Hall Cemetery

Complete independence is unattainable, but all of us cherish the amount we want and can get—freedom to live the lives we choose.

I drove out to Bonny Hall Cemetery, 1440 River Road, in Big Estate, South Carolina, to photograph headstones for the Find A Grave database. The cemetery is a short distance from a former rice plantation of the same name, dating back to 1732, on the Combahee River in the ACE Basin. A few miles farther inland toward Yemassee on River Road are Hobonny and Auldbrass, and all of these estates have been carefully restored and maintained by private owners.

The ACE Basin has stories to tell. During the Civil War, Harriet Tubman served as a scout for a Union military operation, known as the Combahee River Raid, in which 750 slaves were rescued. Several secessionists’ plantations were destroyed in the process. The original Bonny Hall was demolished by Union troops.

Today, tourists and freight haulers rush up and down the Charleston Highway across the Combahee on the Harriet Tubman Bridge. At that spot, in every season, the marshland is breathtakingly beautiful. If I encounter someone who has taken notice of it, then I feel I know the person’s heart.

In the ACE Basin, a coalition of property owners has put land into conservation easements, which offer tax relief, in order to prevent overdevelopment and environmental degradation. The downside, if you happen to live in Big Estate, is scant-to-no local job opportunities.

I explored Bonny Hall Cemetery and photographed about 200 headstones in the company of swarms of mosquitos and a bright red velvet ant. The earth underfoot was soft and gave way occasionally. The graveyard isn’t far from the river. Some of the graves were sunken. One tombstone was decorated with a lovely rose carving. Several had been bestowed with tributes.

The process of uploading the graveyard photographs can yield stories, too. When my snapshots were hasty because it was 97 degrees in the shade, sometimes the tombstone inscriptions weren’t visible or legible, so I needed to find a supplemental death certificate or other record online.

palm frond engraving on headstone

Carolina Fields’ grave marker bore a graceful and unusual palm frond decoration befitting someone with such a pretty name. Carolina Fields, to my surprise, was a man. Born in 1865, he died of heart failure 65 years later, having worked as a day laborer on the plantations.

Another marker, the oldest I found, provided little information but enough to disturb me for a good while:

In Memory of
PRINCE.
An honest Man
And faithful Servant
Died 5th Feby 1858

In 2017 in the United States of America, all of us are supposed to be free to live our lives and pursue our various versions of happiness, but also buried at Bonny Hall is Jacqueline Young, “Aged 37 years of New York and formerly of the Big Estate Community of Beaufort County, died September 11 in the World Trade Center Tragedy.”

Cherish your freedom.

Though there were snakes in the grass

The sign pointing to Shuler Cemetery in Berkeley County, South Carolina, was beguiling. Shuler Lane, a well-maintained gravel track, crossed through woods and over a little bog before ending on higher ground at the graveyard. A man looked up from his grass trimming equipment expecting me to introduce myself. The cemetery is directly across the street from the MacDougall Correctional Institution.

I had just visited another cemetery a quarter-mile down the road to photograph the graves of people who shared my surname, and I thought more might be found in Shuler. The man’s tight-lipped smile told me there was no possibility. There are no appropriate words. We exchanged last names, and he told me which big families were buried in Shuler Cemetery—the Pringles, the Riverses, and the Gaddists. He pointed out the grave of his sister, a Smith.

He was genuinely intrigued when I asked his permission to photograph the markers so I could upload the images to Find A Grave. As a member of his church community’s cemetery board, he had temporarily assumed lawn care responsibilities following the sexton’s recent death. At 76, Smith wasn’t forgetting the five coronary bypasses he’d undergone a decade earlier. He was taking care of his health. A freshly excavated grave on the opposite side of the cemetery awaited the funeral of a man who had died young.

I asked about place names, wondering whether I had ventured into the Sandhills region of South Carolina, but Ridgeville, Sandridge, and Pringletown are in the Coastal Plain. Smith remembered summer days when the sand surface of what is now a paved highway became so hot it forced a person to walk in the grass. He’d once asked someone how 35-Mile Road got its name and learned that it was a 35-mile drive to Charleston. On a first visit to the beach, he’d recognized the same sand that covered the roads back home.

When families nearby in Berkeley County grew large enough, he told me, people used their surnames as shorthand when giving directions: over toward Gaddisttown, up near Pringletown.

At mention of the area’s cotton fields, I admitted I’d been impressed by the cotton harvest because it was new to me. I think it delighted the man to ask, “But have you ever seen people picking cotton?” He had worked in the cotton fields in Berkeley County in the early 1950s, when he was barely a teenager.

Beyond the cotton fields, people in the county who have my last name once worked with Smith at the Mead Corporation’s paper mill. Now, the newest thing in Ridgeville is Volvo’s auto plant, Project Thor, being built on land once owned by MeadWestvaco. At the crossroads, by the two cemeteries and the correctional facility with its permanent “Now Hiring” billboard, a corner store has been repurposed as a roadhouse. Motorcycles were accumulating in its parking lot by 1:00 p.m.

I went to Sandridge/Pringletown with a little trepidation that might have been justified, and I met the kindest gentleman in all of Berkeley County. How does that happen?

Shuler Cemetery